The Psychology of Jealousy: Why You Get Jealous and How to Handle It in a Healthy Way


Jealousy is one of those “icky” emotions where it feels gross or wrong simply to feel it in the first place.

Unfortunately, this sense of disgust or shame we feel about feeling jealous is exactly the thing that makes jealousy such a difficult emotion to manage effectively.

In the rest of this guide, I’m going to walk you through the psychology of jealousy—showing you a more helpful way to think about what jealousy is and how it really works.

We’ll end with some practical suggestions for how to manage jealousy in your own life in a healthy way.

What Is Jealousy, Exactly?

The standard dictionary definition of jealousy is something like this:

Feeling resentment because of another’s success or advantages.

Now, this is an okay definition, but I think it misses some psychological nuance…

1. Resentment isn’t quite right…

Resentment is close, but I think feeling jealous is really its own distinct emotion.

Part of the problem with resentment as a proxy for jealousy is that typically resentment happens as a result of being wronged in some way—and as such is closer to the anger family of emotion.

And while there’s definitely some of this anger element in jealousy, it’s my experience that when you really reflect on it, jealousy is more closely related to sadness and fear—that is, it tends to be a response to a perceived or threatened loss or inadequacy (more on this later).

2. It’s more about you than them.

This standard definition of jealousy makes it seem like it’s all about what the other person possesses. In reality, I think jealousy is a much more inward-focused emotion—as if another person’s success or value is a reminder of an inadequacy or fear within us.

3. Jealousy isn’t just a feeling.

We’ll talk a lot more about this in the next section, but one of the biggest problems with most definitions of jealousy and the way most of us think about jealousy is that it’s framed purely as an emotion.

But I think there’s often a lot more to jealousy than just the feeling… Specifically, jealousy usually involves both patterns of thinking and behavior that are important.

Because that last point is so important for how to actually manage your jealousy, let’s take a closer look into this distinction between feeling jealous vs acting jealous.

Feeling jealous vs acting jealous

For most of us, it’s pretty obvious when we’re feeling jealous:

  • You catch your boyfriend chatting with a member of the opposite sex and feel a little surge of jealousy.
  • You listen as your best friend describes the big promotion they got (and corresponding pay increase) and feel a spike of jealousy.
  • You notice how fit and muscular the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym is and feel jealous.

What’s less obvious, is what happens after that initial feeling of jealousy…

We almost always end up acting jealous immediately after feeling jealous.

Of course, this acting out of our jealousy is usually subtle and mostly invisible to other people. And it tends to come in two forms:

  1. Jealous thinking
  2. Jealous behavior

Jealous thinking is what your mind usually does after feeling jealous:

  • You start imagining how your boyfriend might secretly be having an affair because they’re over you and trying to get out of the relationship.
  • You start going through scenarios in your head of why your friend doesn’t really deserve the promotion nearly as much as you do.
  • You tell yourself that you’d be that fit too if you were young and single and actually had time to exercise regularly.

In other words, jealous thinking is the story you tell yourself when you feel jealous.

This matters because—as we’ll discuss later on—one of the things that make our jealousy both more intense and long-lasting is the story we tell ourselves about it and as a result of it.

In other words, people who have a more general tendency to worry and ruminate, are much more likely to act out their jealousy (if only in their own mind).

Jealous, behavior, on the other hand, is what we physically do in response to feeling jealous:

  • You start flirting with someone at the party yourself as a way to get your boyfriend’s attention or “make him pay.”
  • You start communicating in a passive-aggressive way with your friend any time the topic of work or your jobs come up.
  • You stop working out because being around fit people triggers painful feelings in you.

Jealous behavior is what you do—consciously or not—in response to feeling jealous.

Becoming more aware of our jealous behavior is critical because it can easily lead to self-sabotage and other destructive patterns.

Before we move on to some tips and strategies for dealing with our jealousy in a healthy way, we need to talk a little bit about where jealousy comes from.

Because you can’t respond to jealousy in a healthy way if you don’t understand its function or what it’s trying to do.

What causes jealousy?

If you want to understand how jealousy actually works, and how to work with it most effectively, you need to realize one crucial concept…

Jealousy is a natural reaction to real or threatened loss.

Okay, there’s a lot in that statement, so let’s unpack it a bit…

1. Jealousy is a natural reaction…

It’s critical that you see jealousy as a natural emotion and not something inherently bad or defective. Just like it’s natural to feel fear when we’re threatened or angry when an injustice has been committed, it’s natural to feel jealous sometimes too.

While jealousy is natural in the sense of being normal, it’s also natural in that it’s useful—or at least trying to be. Just like anger properly channeled is a useful way to correct injustice, jealousy can also be useful. More on this in a minute…

2. …To real or threatened loss.

Let’s work backward here… Jealousy is about loss. Now, this might sound counterintuitive at first, but bear with me.

When we see something good or valuable that someone else has and our focus is on that thing itself and that other person, our reaction is more like admiration, wonder, etc. Jealousy comes in when we start comparing what other people have to what we lack. So at a fundamental level, jealousy is about something we feel like we don’t possess but should.

Here’s an example to illustrate:

If you’re already a top manager in your company, and you see a low-level intern work hard and get their first promotion, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel jealous because what they have is something you already possess. You’re not losing anything or reminded of something you lack. Of course, you still might feel threatened, for example, but that’s a different thing.

Jealousy always involves comparison. And at the end of the day, it’s about what you value but lack (or are afraid of lacking).

Side Note: An interesting implication of this way of looking at jealousy, btw, is that jealousy is often a good indicator of what we value. Two jealousy researchers, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Baland Jalal, have argued that “what you really value in life is more often revealed by asking yourself who you are jealous of rather than asking yourself directly ‘what do I value.’” This is another sense in which even though jealousy feels bad, it could—with the right perspective—be a useful tool to accomplish something productive like getting to know your values.

The big takeaway from all this is pretty straightforward:

Jealousy is a very understandable reaction to realizing that you’re lacking something (or are at risk of losing something) valuable.

From this perspective, then, jealousy isn’t just another “negative emotion” to try and get rid of. It’s a valuable signal reminding you of what really matters to you and the potential risk of losing it or not possessing it.

Of course, like any emotion, the message it contains isn’t necessarily accurate…

For example:

You might be completely secure in your romantic relationship and still feel a little jealous when your partner does something that looks flirty to you. That little spike of jealousy might just be the result of your misinterpretation of what’s going on, in which case it’s not necessarily helpful.

The bigger point is this:

Jealousy will always feel uncomfortable. But if you use it as a way to consider your values, it can become constructive rather than destructive.

Jealousy can remind you of what you really value and help motivate you to move toward it, achieve it, or hold on to it if it’s something you already possess.

How to Deal with Jealousy in a Healthy Way: 5 Practical Suggestions

In the previous section, there were two key points that we should remember because all of the recommendations I’m going to give about dealing with jealousy are based on them:

  1. Just because jealousy feels bad, doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. Jealousy is a normal human emotion. Everybody experiences it sometimes. And there are often good reasons for feeling that way.
  2. Feeling jealous is different than acting jealous. Whether you feel jealous or not isn’t something you have direct control over. But you can control how you think and how you behave while you feel jealous or in response to it.

With those two core principles in mind, let’s jump into some practical suggestions for how to manage jealousy in a healthy and effective way.

1. Validate your jealousy

Emotional validation is a complicated-sounding idea that’s actually very straightforward…

Emotional validation means acknowledging how you feel and reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel that way—however painful or uncomfortable.

What really gets people into trouble with jealousy is that their starting assumption is that it’s not okay for them to feel jealous.

The problem is, when you start judging your jealousy (and yourself for feeling it) you add a second layer of painful emotions on top of an already difficult feeling:

  • When you judge yourself for feeling jealousy, you now feel guilty or ashamed and jealous.
  • When you tell yourself it’s bad that you feel jealous, now you feel anxious and jealous.
  • When you criticize yourself for feeling jealous, now you feel angry and jealous.

And the more painful emotion you pile on top of yourself, the more pressure you’re going to feel to do something quickly to feel better.

Unfortunately, these quick fixes for feeling better, often tap into our worst instincts and end up as self-sabotage…

  • Because you’re so ashamed of how you’re feeling, you lash out critically at someone else in order to very briefly make yourself feel powerful and justified.
  • You’re so afraid of being perceived as jealous, that you never speak up assertively about what’s bothering you.
  • You’re so angry that you end up acting out aggressively and saying or doing something hurtful and damaging to someone you love.

In short, it’s very easy to be judgmental of ourselves for feeling jealous, but when we do this, it only adds more pressure to the system. And more often than not, this pressure comes out in unhelpful ways.

Which brings us back to validation…

Emotional validation is like a pressure release valve for your emotions. When we feel bad, simply acknowledging those difficult feelings and reminding ourselves that it’s okay to feel that way takes an enormous amount of emotional pressure off of ourselves.

And when we don’t feel as pressured, it’s much easier to tolerate those difficult jealous feelings and respond in a way that’s helpful rather than destructive.

Summary: The first step in managing your jealousy in a healthy way is to validate it. Acknowledge that you’re feeling jealous and remind yourself that however much you dislike feeling that way, it doesn’t mean the feeling is bad or you are bad for feeling it.

2. Look for other emotions “behind” your jealousy

Most people, when asked to describe how they’re feeling, typically respond with one, single feeling:

  • I’m really anxious
  • I’m mad
  • I feel pretty sad

The thing is, it’s actually rare to only experience one single emotion at a time.

Far more often, we’re actually experiencing a range of different emotions at any given point. And while there’s usually one dominant “loud” emotion, it’s a mistake to assume that it’s the only one—or the only important one.

When it comes to feeling jealous, it’s easy to get fixated on jealousy and ignore the other “quieter” emotions behind it. Unfortunately, ignoring these other emotions can be a mistake because often they’re trying to tell us something valuable…

For example:

  • You’re at a party with your girlfriend and notice her talking with another guy. You instantly start to feel jealous.
  • But when you stop and consider how else you’re feeling, you realize you’re feeling a little sad too.
  • Upon further reflection, you realize that your sadness has to do with the fact that your girlfriend is very socially confident and finds it easy to talk with new people. But for you, this is hard. And you feel sad and disappointed that parties are so much more difficult for you to navigate.

Acknowledging the sadness behind your jealousy is important because it gives you another way of thinking about how you could respond.

Here’s how it might play out:

  • Instead of responding to your jealousy (which may or may not be an accurate reflection of what’s going on) and confronting your girlfriend about it, you could validate the jealousy, and then react constructively to your sadness and disappointment at not being very social at parties instead.
  • Specifically, you could try and strike up a conversation with someone and address your need for social connection.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that your jealousy happened because your girlfriend is being inappropriately flirtatious with someone else. In which case, confronting her about it may in fact be the best action.

But, if there’s a good chance that’s not actually what’s going on, then acting on your jealousy (either mentally or behaviorally) is unlikely to be helpful. And very possibly could lead to you feeling worse and then doing something regrettable as a result.

On the other hand, when you take a moment to explore the other emotions behind the jealousy, you give yourself options for other ways to react. And many of these options could be far more helpful than reacting to the jealousy impulsively.

If you want to learn more about building emotional self-awareness, I run a course called Mood Mastery which includes a deep dive on this very topic and similar skills in emotional intelligence.

3. Write down your jealousy story

Without a doubt, the biggest reason people struggle with their jealousy is because they ruminate on it.

Rumination is a form of unhelpful negative thinking. It usually involves dwelling on upsetting topics you don’t have control over—replaying them or elaborating on them in your mind over and over again.

When people first feel jealous, often their instinct is to think more about it—analyze it, elaborate on it, judge it, etc. But one of the problems with this is that the more you focus on your jealousy, the bigger and more long-lasting it’s going to become.

On the other hand, if you can avoid ruminating on your jealousy, it’s much more likely to fade out rather quickly (most emotions—jealousy included—dissipate surprisingly quickly when we stop amplifying them by thinking and attending to them).

Of course, sometimes it is good to think about your jealousy, the situation that provoked it, what you want to do in response, etc.

So the dilemma here is how to think about your jealousy in a way that’s helpful and productive instead of simply stewing on and ruminating unhelpfully.

In my experience, the best way to ensure that your thinking is accurate and constructive rather than biased and destructive is to do it on paper.

  • For one thing, you can’t write nearly as fast as you can think. When you write down your jealousy story—what happened, what you think it means, what you ought to do, if anything—you’ll do it more slowly and intentionally.
  • It’s also a lot easier to get a balanced and realistic perspective on your story when it’s literally in front of you in writing. You’ll notice blatant exaggerations, irrational conclusions, and the like much more easily when your thoughts are written down slowly rather than speeding through your mind.

So, when you find yourself feeling jealous, and you decide it’s worth reflecting on more analytically, try to do it on paper rather than in your head.

Because remember:

For better or worse, your thoughts will determine how intensely you feel and for how long.

If you would like to feel less jealous, take control over your jealous story and make sure it’s as accurate and balanced as possible. Writing it down is a good place to start.

If you’re interested in learning more about how changing your thinking can change the way you feel, this guide on changing negative thinking might be helpful.

4. Clarify your values

Ironically, the most difficult part of jealousy isn’t the feeling itself but how we respond to it:

  • The hours of mental rumination and stewing about the person your’re jealous of. And all the extra jealousy, anger, anxiety, and other emotion that goes along with it.
  • The reactive and impulse decisions we make the instant we feel jealous that so often end up hurting both ourselves and other people.
  • Or sometimes our avoidance and suppression of jealousy allows bad behavior to go unchecked because of our own anxiety and lack of assertiveness.

Whatever the case may be, the real secret to managing your jealousy is this:

Stop trying to manage your jealousy itself and get better at managing your reaction to it.

In other words, other than some validation and self-acceptance, there’s not much you can do about the emotion of jealousy. Where we do have real control is in the ways we act out our jealousy—either internally or behaviorally.

In addition to the steps we’ve already listed, one of the best ways to start reacting to jealousy in a healthier way is to get more clarity about our values.

Values are the principles we aspire to live out. Honesty, for example, is often a value for people, or courage.

When our values are clearly defined and present in our minds, they exert a kind of motivating pull on our behavior which helps us steer clear of impulsive and self-sabotaging behavior.

For example:

  • Suppose you’re feeling jealous because of something your spouse did.
  • Your initial instinct is to “get back at them” by making a sarcastic and biting comment.
  • Obviously, this probably won’t be very helpful in the long run—either in terms of your own jealousy or your relationship. But it’s an easy thing to get “pulled into.” It’s a mild form of self-sabotage.
  • On the other hand, suppose at the moment you start feeling jealous, you remind yourself of your value of straightforward communication with your spouse. And how, in the past, you’ve been able to clear up issues much more quickly and smoothly when you communicate honestly.
  • Well, that’s going to make it much more likely that you choose an adaptive and helpful response to your jealousy rather than an impulsive or instinctual one.

We all have values of course. The problem is that most of the time they’re not very clear. And when values aren’t clear and personally relevant, they don’t exert nearly as much motivating pull on our actions.

If you want to start responding to jealousy more constructively, one of the best things you can do is make time to get to know your values.

5. Take assertive action

The final helpful step you can take when you’re feeling jealous is to take assertive action.

Taking assertive action means you make decisions and act in a way that aligns with your values and what you think is right—regardless of how you happen to feel in the moment.

Here’s an example:

  • Suppose you’re at lunch with a friend and they begin telling you about a big sum of money they just inherited and all the exciting things they’re planning to do with it.
  • Very understandably, you notice yourself feeling jealous.
  • Now, most people in this situation implicitly judge themselves for feeling jealous (She’s my best friend… I shouldn’t feel jealous—I should be happy for her! What’s wrong with me?). And as a result, they try to avoid or suppress their jealousy and pretend they’re not jealous.
  • Unfortunately, avoiding your jealousy makes it more likely that it will come out eventually in undesirable ways—usually resentment or passive-aggressiveness.
  • On the other hand, you could reflect on how you aspire to react to your friend’s windfall and remind yourself that just because I feel jealous doesn’t mean I can’t also express my happiness for them.
  • So in this case, taking assertive action might mean that, after your lunch, but before you leave, you make a point to tell them in a very genuine way that you’re excited for them.

Wait a second? It wouldn’t be honest for me to say I’m excited for them when really I’m jealous, right?

Here’s the thing: You can feel jealous and excited at the same time. And in my experience, it’s almost never the case that people feel exclusively jealous about someone else’s good fortune.

So, when you tell them you’re excited for them, that’s not a denial of your jealousy; you’re simply giving voice to a smaller but still perfectly valid emotion in you as well.

The more general point is this:

If you want to stop reacting negatively to your jealousy, be intentional about how you do want to respond to it.

The first step of this is what we discussed in part 4 about clarifying your values. But once you’ve done that, you still need to act on them. And to do it in a way that’s honest and straightforward—in other words, to act assertively.

With practice, assertiveness is a skill we can all build and get better at. And when you do, it will make managing your jealousy effective much, much easier.

Summary & Conclusion

The key to managing jealousy in a healthy and effective way is to understand what it really is and how it works.

If you don’t take anything else away from this guide, remember these two key ideas:

  1. Jealousy is a normal human emotion. Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad or that you’re bad for feeling it.
  2. Feeling jealous is different than acting on your jealousy. The key to managing jealousy well is to validate the feeling of jealousy and take control over your mental and behavioral response to jealousy.

Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.

Image courtesy of cottonbro.

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